Microsoft Surface 2 review: Quality tablet suffering from a lack of app support

It does a better job at capturing the spaces directly above or below you than Google's tablets, but I either don't have a steady enough hand to stitch together a smooth cohesive picture or the app needs to do a better job at leading me through the steps of creating a panorama. I could never complete a picture that didn't look like a digital Picasso painting.

That said, Microsoft added plenty of picture-editing options. There's a useful selective focus option that allows you to sharpen one asset while blurring everything else. The shadow options let you adjust the fullness of shadows in the shot.

The redesigned Xbox Music makes finding what you want to listen to a lot easier. Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

My favorite is the color enhancement feature, which lets you selectively increase the color of any object in the shot. Combined, these features are some of the most robust I've seen on a tablet camera app. They aren't as gimmicky as some found in Samsung's Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition, but feel more useful, especially for people a bit more serious about photo editing.

Xbox Movies and Music have deeper media libraries now, and the redesigned Xbox Music in particular makes finding what you want to listen to a lot easier. With more than 30 million songs, it's one of the best free streaming-music services around.

A Windows Store makeover
The Windows Store gets a cleaner, somewhat more sophisticated and flatter look. Microsoft has chosen to pull back a bit and not dump as much information on you, giving you the choice of finding it yourself. Promoted lists are a bit more focused and feel more specifically chosen. Lists like "New and Rising," "Surface Picks," and a list of Trending apps should make finding what's popular and good a bit easier. The new pull-down navigation menu should help as well.

The new look of the Windows Store. The redesigned review section for each app is probably my favorite new addition. Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

User reviews of individual apps are more prominent and useful; you can now see just how many five-star or four-star or three-star -- and so on -- reviews have been posted for the app in question. Also, swiping to the right or left reveals more app information, allowing you to easily find related apps or apps made by the same developer. Your installed apps are now auto-updated, ensuring that you'll always have the latest versions.

I like the Windows Store changes. It not only makes it easier to find apps, but is now much better at delivering useful information about each app. It's not perfect -- there may still be a bit too much swiping required, and it's not as effective at promoting apps compared with rival app stores -- but it's a noticeable and appreciated improvement to what RT users have experienced for the past year. Hopefully, the changes will inspire more developers to bring their apps to the platform. Which leads me to my next point.

So, what about app availability?
Last year I called the Surface RT "an innovative tablet stranded in an app desert". Have things improved in the last year? The short answer is: yes. There are more apps in Windows Store, including official Facebook and Twitter apps. There are plenty of cool apps for cooking, too, but still no official YouTube app. The holes are being filled, but it's slow going and seems to be rather random.

Things have improved for the Windows Store in terms of app availability, but they still aren't where they need to be. Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

Game availability has increased, but not as much as should have by now. While Halo: Spartan Assault is a quality exclusive game, the very latest games like Asphalt 8, Riptide GP2, and Angry Birds Star Wars 2 are nowhere to be seen.

So while I can't in good conscience call the Windows Store "an apps desert," it still feels like a developing market -- one that's unsatisfying if you've experienced Apple's, Google's, or Amazon's app ecosystem.

Performance
By including a Tegra 3 in the Surface RT -- at the time an already year-old system-on-chip (SoC) -- Microsoft underestimated the appeal of having a powerful graphics processor in a tablet. The Surface 2 thankfully houses a much more powerful 1.7GHz Tegra 4 SoC.

Riptide GP runs smoothly and looks great on the Surface 2. Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

This is the same Tegra 4 that HP put in its Slatebook X2, and the performance -- at least according to 3DMark, is very similar. The Surface 2 scored 13,068 in 3DMark. That's higher than the iPad 4 (9,425), Nexus 10 (8,553), and of course Surface RT (3,339). It's a great score and speaks accurately to the tablet's gaming prowess, but it's not as fast as the new Kindle Fire HDX (16,655) or Nvidia Shield (16,348). Riptide GP -- the original -- ran at an incredibly smooth frame rate, and it looked fantastic at 1080p. It doesn't have the high-end effects of its sequel, but it's a fun game that runs silky smooth on the Surface 2. Unfortunately, it's one of very few of its kind.

Six Guns by Gameloft is probably the most taxing traditional-view polygonal game in the Windows Store. It runs noticeably smoother than on the Surface RT, but wasn't as smooth as I'd hoped it would be. By going with the 1.7GHz version of the Tegra 4 instead of the faster 1.9GHz, Microsoft makes a performance sacrifice. Load times, though, were much-improved over the Surface RT.

Swiping through different apps feels immediate and smooth, as does snapping multiple apps into split-screen mode. Movies load faster and look sharper, and boot times are now shorter.

The Surface 2 loads Web pages much faster than the Surface RT ever did. Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

Page loads in Internet Explorer are also faster. Gamespot.com took an average of 10 seconds to load on the Surface 2 and more than 20 seconds on the Surface RT. It still isn't as fast as the iPad, Kindle Fire HDX, or Nexus 7, though.

The new 1,920x1,080-pixel screen is sharp, bright, and outputs colors more accurately than the Surface RT. Side-by-side, the Surface RT's screen looks yellowish in comparison.

Tested spec Microsoft Surface 2 Microsoft Surface Apple iPad 4 Google Nexus 10 (2012)
Maximum brightness 315 cd/m2 391 cd/m2 455 cd/m2 368 cd/m2
Maximum black level 0.24 cd/m2 0.27 cd/m2 0.49 cd/m2 0.44 cd/m2
Contrast ratio 1,313:1 1,448:1 939:1 836:1

The new cameras deliver sharp pics and video, and their low aperture allows them to capture a lot of detail even in low light. The 3.5-megapixel front-facing camera is the best front shooter on any tablet yet. It captures clear, colorful images with lots of detail.

The new speakers are louder and clearer than the speakers in last year's RT, and are fine for delivering background music as long as you're not sitting too far away from them. They're louder than last year's, but not as loud or quite as clear as the Kindle Fire HDX's. There's a slight muffled quality to them you won't find on Amazon's latest tablet.

With the screen brightness at about half, battery life lasted throughout the day while testing the tablet, watching videos, surfing the Web, and idling in standby. In our official battery results -- running a local HD version of "The Avengers" while in Airplane mode -- the Surface 2 lasted an impressive 11.6 hours, compared with 9.5 hours for Surface RT.

Conclusion
The Surface 2 enters a more competitive and intimidating market than the Surface RT did last year. Tablets continue to get better, and the general public is more aware of Windows RT's inherent limitations and have seen fit to pass judgment .

The Surface 2 has a few notable advantages in its corner, including quality design and hardware. It's still the best productivity tablet thanks to comfortable keyboard options, free Office 2013, 200GB of free SkyDrive space for two years, and unlimited worldwide Skype minutes for one year. Xbox Music and Video are also both easily comparable with similar services on the other tablet platforms. However, the software limitations of Windows RT -- the lack of legacy app support, in particular -- still loom over it like an ever-watching Visigoth.

Also, despite its quality, at $449 starting, the Surface 2 is still an expensive prospect. Especially given the fact that there are now viable options -- based on its specs and the admittedly few minutes I've spent with it -- like the $349 Asus Transformer Book T100 out there. By the way, the price of the Asus includes a keyboard, 32GB of storage, and full Windows 8.1.

Microsoft still charges $80, $120, and $130 for its Touch Cover, Touch Cover 2, and Type Cover 2, respectively. And while the Surface 2 may outclass the T100 in hardware, if all you're looking for is a cheap tablet computer that runs legacy Windows apps, the T100 can do just that. The Surface 2 can't.

The Windows Store is still not yet ready to compete with the big boys. It's improved over the last year, but so has the competition, especially Google's and Amazon's stores. The Apple App Store remains the premiere purveyor of apps, bar none.

The Surface 2 is a lot like Nvidia's Shield: an undeniably high-quality product that's still waiting for lots of high-quality software to go along with it. If you're a fan of the Windows 8 ecosystem, the hardware improvements here serve it well. However, Amazon, Google, and Apple still do tablets better.

What you'll pay

    Pricing is currently unavailable.

    Editors' Top PicksSee All

     

    Join the discussion

    Conversation powered by Livefyre

    Where to Buy

    Microsoft Surface 2

    Part Number: 286867200 Released: 23 Oct 2013
    Pricing is currently unavailable.

    Quick Specifications See All

    • Regional specs shown for US. UK specs are unavailable.

    • Release date 23 Oct 2013
    • Wireless Connectivity Bluetooth 4.0
      Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n
      Wi-fi 802.11a/b/g/n
    • Weight 1.49 lbs
    • Type Microsoft Windows 8.1 RT
    • Storage 32 GB
    Hot Products